You’re about to read a sentence you never thought you would: Lifetime has made a good biopic movie. It’s true. And we’re not talking so bad it’s good, like the gold standard of that genre, Showgirls. Just good good.
No disrespect to Lifetime, but it’s hard to turn a blind eye to hatchet jobs like Liz & Dick, The Brittany Murphy Story, and Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B. To be sure, biopics of beloved celebrities are almost always met with instant criticism, from casting choices to the eternal question of why wasn’t this story good enough for the big screen?
But Lifetime may have finally found its stride with its latest original movie Whitney, directed by none other than Oscar-nominated, Golden-Globe-winning actress, Angela Bassett.
Whitney chronicles the epic, tragic life of Whitney Houston (Yaya DaCosta) over a span of five years, starting at the absolute peak of her career in 1989 to the very beginning of when things started to become undone. It’s during this time that she meets Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta), sparking a romance as intense as it was turbulent. “I had my little erase board at home like, ‘what is this about?’ It’s about love,” Bassett says. “It’s a love story and it’s about all the pressures that come to kill and destroy love and how equipped are you to fight those things off.”
Although the Houston estate has expressed their displeasure with the project, Bassett stands by the film as an honest representation of Whitney and Bobby’s lives. “With every scene I tried to find what’s beneath it and how can we honestly serve that moment,” Bassett says. “We experience new love–I was trying to bring that out. The excitement when the back of your legs tingle and it’s like ‘Oooh, damn!’ He was as smitten as she was. Their connection was so rich and deep and real, so how can I convey that?”
Whitney could have easily been some maudlin melodrama, cherry-picking Houston’s most salacious tabloid headlines, but Bassett and writer Shem Bitterman handle the story with a degree of sensitivity and insight that, fingers crossed, Lifetime will earmark for future TV movies.
Bassett spoke with Fast Company about braving her directorial debut, how her own life guided her in telling someone else’s, and why crafting a scene is like foreplay.
You acted alongside Whitney in Waiting To Exhale–did you feel a personal connection to directing this movie?
When it came to me, it just sort of landed in my lap and in my heart. Having worked with Whitney, having spent time around her, instead of being on the outside looking at this grand person’s beautiful persona, an image that’s crafted, I got to spend time in the car with her or bowling or laughing, just telling her how marvelous and gifted I thought she was–how anointed and special. And I’m glad I got the opportunity to say that to her.
What was it like sitting in the director’s chair for the first time?
When I thought about directing I always thought it must be almost impossible–it must be something akin to doing Chinese mathematics and you don’t know Chinese. So if you’re going to attempt that, you better be in love with it! And I was in love with her, so I was passionate about the task. Though intimidated, though insecure at times, I felt as if her spirit was right there.
Coming from an established acting background that includes your most celebrated role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It, what do you feel you brought to Whitney as a director?
I spoke the actors’ language. I was able to understand and see their gifts and what they’re bringing. When they were shy I could encourage them. I would tell Yaya, “you are everything.” I’ve been in that situation where Tina was like, “oh, you are perfect.” And that was so generous of her. It was like, I’m standing in front of Tina–I know I’m not perfect! But the fact she would say that filled me with such confidence and I was there to fill [Yaya] with confidence and to assure her that what she possessed in her being was not far removed from Whitney–that this girl is graceful and beautiful and charming and charismatic and so are you.
It was easy for me to encourage and I was thankful that these young actors had faith in me even if I had to say, “Bobby, please, I need four pumps–don’t be shy.” Or: “In this love scene, don’t think badly of me, everyone, but I need to see someone’s tongue!”
Such an intimate portrayal of Whitney needs some level of understanding that, say, a male director may not have achieved as well as you have–what sensibilities from your life did you bring to the film?
When you’re in the midst of it, you’re not thinking about it too much but when you have a little bit of perspective from it–I know doing the love scenes I thought from a woman’s perspective, this is the way she feels, the way she sees it. I think we have a different sort of sensibility and sensitivity to what’s going on and the way we see things. This is her story–this was her man, this was her life and I think I brought that female perspective and passion to it. And time–the time it takes. Don’t rush a woman–it takes time! I need a certain amount of foreplay and then it’s all going to be good. Same with a scene–I approach a scene maybe my producer will be in my ear and it’s like, “we’ll get there.” We can’t just jump in and try to get to the result–that won’t be good for anyone. We’ve gotta massage things a little bit. I think being a woman was important to the story. Maybe even being a black woman also or a woman who’s had a bit of celebrity. I have a little more insight and understanding to what that’s like.
Whitney’s music is like a character in itself–how did the five songs featured in the movie come together?
[Music producer] Dick Rudolph helped us out with the music, finding a crew, RedOne, that could re-do these songs for us and he had every confidence in them. I said, “Okay, that’s great. What about someone to sing these songs–how hard will that be?” And said, “Oh, not hard at all.” What?! Not hard at all?! We’ve all watched The Voice and when these young folks try to sing a Whitney Houston song and it’s like, “Hmm…you should’ve tried something else.”
It’s just a standard that’s too high for most to reach. And [Rudolph] said, “Easy, Deborah Cox” and I said you stop right there–that’s a friend of mine and I’m going to call her right now. And it was just perfect–it was absolutely divine. She had done a duet with Whitney, they were label-mates for awhile on Arista. She came in and took such care and ownership of making it right that it was mind-blowing to the technicians in the room. She came in and did “I’m Your Baby Tonight” in 30 minutes. She did Whitney’s vocals and all the backup vocals. It was like “Mmmhmm, now ya’ll mix it!”
You’ve mentioned that Whitney may not be truthful, but it’s honest–what’s the difference to you?
It’s inspired by these two individuals. There are some moments in it where we did not have the time nor the expertise to re-create certain moments. I’m thinking of the scene at the Biarritz Lounge.
Where Bobby Brown’s friend was shot and killed?
What I wanted to be honest to was the emotion, what it feels like to lose a friend. When he calls [Whitney] after the Biarritz Lounge, it’s not truthful that she was on stage performing, but I think for me the honesty of that moment was that she was going on with her life in some way. Maybe in a mundane way, but in some way and it was interrupted by life and death.
You’ve put your name on a project that’s under intense scrutiny from Whitney fans, not to mention her own family. What do you want everyone to get from this movie?
We broached it to the family, paid our respects, and they chose not to be involved. There’s gotta be some conflict to make the story interesting, I guess. It’s a sensitive subject–she was their heart so I’m just trying to put a positive spin on it. Okay, It’s not the entire life–it’s not a big motion picture. But in being the “trailer” it makes you want to see the whole picture.
Whitney premieres January 17 at 8|7c on Lifetime.